FIT’s ‘Force of Nature’: Conversations Between Fashion and the Natural World

Nature comes alive in this dress, made of chiffon and digitally printed silk satin from McQueen's 2010 collection 'Plato's Atlantis.'
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The Museum at FIT, situated at Seventh Avenue and 27th Street, is now home to an exploration of fashion’s dynamic tango with nature. Until November 18th, visitors will be able to glimpse inspired and effervescent garments from Alexander McQueen, Charles James, Yves Saint Laurent and others, all of which display the magnificent, yet often destructive, relationship between fashion design and the natural world. The exhibition, displaying around 95 items from the 18th century to the present day, both celebrates and critiques this exchange.

When you first enter the exhibit, you are greeted by rainforest sounds and a spellbinding spread of Alexander McQueen’s final collection from 2010, titled Plato’s Atlantis. Here, a delicately-rendered dress sporting a crocodile-python pattern stands beside a leather mini-dress from McQueen’s spring 2009 collection. McQueen, concerned about the grievous effects of global warming and stirred by Darwin’s theory of evolution, designed these pieces in response to climate change and humankind’s destruction of the planet. In Plato’s Atlantis, McQueen asks what would happen if mankind rejected modernity and returned to the ocean “where life began.”

L.S. Plaut and Company presents a straw, lace, and silk hat from 1926.
L.S. Plaut and Company presents a straw, lace, and silk hat from 1926, sporting faux flowers.

In the following room, Iris van Herpen‘s 2013 Splash dress, constructed from acrylic glass, depicts water crashing over a surface. The designer has captured a singular moment in a “natural process” – one which sustains all living things on Earth. Also in this room are contemplations on dinosaurs, avian life, and other environmental phenomena, courtesy of McQueen, Rick Owens, and Arzu Kaprol. A black straw hat from 1926, festooned with faux flowers, signals a departure from the overzealous “bouquets” of Victorian-era hats to a more organic look.

“The Language of Flowers,” featuring garments from Charles James, Pierre Hardy, and Christopher Kane, examines the relationship between flowers and sensuality. Informed by the 19th century preoccupation with flower meanings and Carl Linneaus’s 18th century ideas about human sexuality and plant reproduction, the section presents viewers with fabulous florals and pieces constructed from plants. Among the items on display are a Bes-Ben coral hat from the 1950s, a fern-patterned frock, and a pink ankle-length dress with shell-like layers.

Yves Saint Laurent's velveteen suit for men, 1972.
Yves Saint Laurent’s velveteen suit for men, 1972.

The exhibit also explores how studies of male and female sexuality shaped the garments of designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Mr. Fish, and Alessandro Michele. In “The Science of Attraction,” a psychedelic red jacket from the 1960s and an electric green men’s suit demonstrate the interconnectedness of high style and sexual display. Dubbed the “Peacock Revolution,” the middle of the 20th century saw designers tailor men’s fashions with an eye for allure and charm. This section segues into the next, called “The Aviary.” Surrounded by feathery and flamboyant designs by McQueen, Garçons, and Balenciaga is a video monitor showing Birds of Paradise during mating season.

A segment titled “Physical Forces” examines how aeronautics and theoretical physics influenced designs such as Yvonne May’s velvet evening coat, adorned with comets, and a 1953 Saks Fifth Avenue cocktail dress, embellished with rhinestone stars. After World War II, there was “a belief that science could shape the world for the better”; Einstein’s theories of relativity, Rachel Carson’s conservation efforts, and NASA’s first moon landing in 1969 were just a few of the 20th century accomplishments that helped us to better understand and care for our planet – and beyond.

This starry-eyed 1953 cocktail dress by Saks Fifth Avenue is constructed from silk faille.
This starry-eyed 1953 cocktail dress by Saks Fifth Avenue is constructed from silk faille.

But all too often, the fashion industry’s effect on nature has been destructive: deforestation, poaching, and the endangerment of plant and animal species are all byproducts of our obsession with style. The exhibit offers a final look into how designers and manufacturing companies are finding new ways to produce and style responsibly.

 

Force of Nature, and the rest of the museum, is open Tuesday – Friday, noon – 8 pm, and Saturday, 10 am – 5 pm. The exhibition will run through November 18th.

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